Repatriation to Myanmar is nowhere in sight as threat of disease and hostility from local hosts rises
There are over a million Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh – the latest batch of 800,000 came after August 25, 2017, joining 250,000 that had arrived since the first exodus of mid-1990s. As Myanmar nationals, Rohingya Muslims have historically faced ethnic and religious persecution, culminating in 2017 in a fierce, protracted genocidal campaign by the Myanmar army against its own people. The military launched a violent crackdown leading to arbitrary killings of Rohingya, including children and the elderly, gang rape of women, inhuman torture, and razing of village after village that forced communities to seek shelter in Bangladesh, unleashing a humanitarian crisis unprecedented in recent history.
In the last two years, there have been many twists and turns concerning the repatriation of the Rohingya refugees to their homeland. First, a repatriation agreement signed in November 2017 failed due to the unwillingness of the Myanmar government to recognise the rights and citizenship of Rohingya Muslims. Second, Myanmar imposed an unfair screening and verification process to eliminate so-called illegal Bengali Rohingyas from the list of returnees. Third, in November 2018, a much-publicised repatriation bid for some 2,000 families was stalled after the refugees refused to return for fear of fresh persecution and confinement in newly-built camps across the border in Rakhine state. Fourth, the planned relocation of 100,000 Rohingya to Bhasan Char Island in the Bay of Bengal found no voluntary takers among the refugees for such a remote home on a flood-prone island. Finally, according to a UN official, the repatriation plan is now at a “total standstill”.
With no solution to the refugee crisis in sight, there is growing concern in Dhaka and among the host communities in Cox’s Bazar, who have been severely impacted by the influx of huge numbers of outsiders in their neighbourhoods. There is equal disquiet among Bangladesh government officials about the future of the refugee situation. The challenge is to find the right balance between the official rhetoric calling for their speedy return and long-term plans for the refugees in Cox’s Bazar camps, supported largely by external aid and assistance. The ongoing initiatives for more durable houses, improved roads, solar street lamps, training and employment for women, markets/shops within the camps, and finally provisions for schools for the kids are all indications of a much longer – or even permanent – stay.
Given the ongoing military atrocities against the Rohingya inside Myanmar, the refugees in Cox’s Bazar are not going back home any time soon. Aid workers, diplomats and humanitarian agencies working on long-term plans for improving camp conditions will not, however, publicly state this for fear of contradicting the official position.
At this point, despite constant diplomatic efforts by Dhaka, there seems to be no hope for immediate repatriation. Indeed, the Myanmar government seems least interested in resolving the crisis. The military “clearance operation” is completed; the Myanmar army is sticking to its lies and deceptions, unwilling to give in to any demands of the international community. Even the strategy to send back refugees to so-called “safe zones” inside Myanmar is not gaining any ground. If it does happen, which is unlikely, it would be tantamount to sending them to concentration camps and robbing them of their future rights and citizenship – which are their primary demands. There cannot be any safe zones in Myanmar unless the perpetrators of the Rohingya crisis, including the military generals who committed crimes against humanity and genocide, are brought to justice.
No jobs, no schools, no hope
The current scenario offers no hope or relief for any prospective returnees to Myanmar nor those stranded in Bangladesh camps. The refugees are not allowed to work (although many sneak out to work); they can’t leave the camp, open a bank account, or own a mobile phone; and children can’t attend schools – which could lead to social and cultural integration. The present overcrowded living conditions, poor quality of water and inadequate vaccination have left Rohingya refugees prone to contagious diseases. As a result, both the refugees and the host communities in Cox’s Bazar are reportedly vulnerable to serious health risks.
Meanwhile, the host communities are slowly turning hostile towards their “guests”. The concern is equally evident in Dhaka. At a recent meeting, leading economists and policy analysts rejected the idea of allowing the refugees access to the local labour market, instead recommending their quick repatriation to ease pressure on Bangladesh. Thus, any plan for a long-term stay or opening the door for resettlement and integration would lead to conflicts with local communities and raise a range of security issues for Bangladesh. A Rohingya diaspora in Bangladesh also means a second-class status and extinction of Rohingya culture. Many refugees don’t want this to happen. They want to return to their homes and re-establish their life on their ancestral lands with dignity and full rights as Myanmar nationals.
The Rohingya crisis has not run its course yet. The Bangladesh government should continue to pursue voluntary, safe and dignified repatriation of the Rohingya to Myanmar. Since the UN finds the situation to be at a “total standstill”, Bangladesh should look elsewhere and work with India and China for an acceptable resolution. India has not been friendly to the Rohingya and never supported Bangladesh in any international forum to solve the protracted Rohingya crisis. Myanmar seems more important to India than Bangladesh due to India’s economic and geopolitical interests. China has a strong grip on Myanmar at various levels, including the government and the military establishments. Bangladesh must seriously engage both China and India to find a resolution for a dignified return of the refugees. Until this happens, the crisis will continue and bring miseries to the refugee population as well as the host communities.
Mohammad Zaman is an international development/resettlement specialist and advisory professor at the National Research Centre for Resettlement, Hohai University, Nanjing, China.